Genuine breakthroughs happen very rarely in the computer software industry. The graphical user interface, certainly; the Java, programming language, arguably; the world wide web, absolutely indisputably.
But the idea that inspired what became the largest single software sector in the 1990s – and generated some of the largest personal fortunes – is now taken for granted and often overlooked.
Relational database theory took shape in the 1970s; early products emerged in the 1980s; but it was not until the 1990s that a $12 billion sector was created.
The thinking behind the whole relational database industry – and much of the enthusiasm and commitment that made it all happen – came from one man: Dr Edgar ‘Ted’ Codd, the British-born mathematician and computer scientist who died in April, aged 79, at his Florida home.
While working at IBM’s Almaden Research Labs in a nascent Silicon Valley during the 1970s, Codd revolution-ised database software by advocating a design based on mathematical set theory. In place of the then prevalent hierarchical or Codasyl database approach, in which the structure of data had to be defined within each application program, Codd’s relational database used a new query language (SQL) to access any permutation of data stored in cross-referenced tables.
His theory was eventually adopted by IBM in the 1980s (and was turned into products in the form of SQL/DS and DB2). But that was only when IBM’s then chief executive, Frank Cary, overruled vested interests within the company that continued to favour the old IMS hierarchical data-base system.
Others were somewhat less encumbered. Codd’s seminal 1969 paper ‘A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks’ was the basis for several hugely successful products, including Oracle, Relational Technology Inc’s Ingres, Digital Equipment’s Rdb, Informix (now part of IBM), Microsoft’s SQL Server and Sybase.
The multi-billion dollar fortune of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, stands testament to the importance of Codd’s work, but long-time colleagues bemoan the fact that, in contrast, Codd saw little more than recognition for his breakthrough.
“The sad thing is that Ted never became rich out of his idea,” business associate and fellow researcher Chris Date told the New York Times. “Other people did, but not Ted.” But his legacy is guaranteed, says Date: “A hundred years from now, I’m quite sure, database systems will still be based on Codd’s relational foundation.”